In some parts of the world, to be female is to be recognised as powerful, resilient and in receipt of the same respect given to a man of similar stature, character and charge.
But if you live in a developing country across Asia or Africa, to be female could mean you are hungry even though you’re in charge of your household’s food production. To be female may mean you’re a farmer who lacks access to the same work tools or land rights as your male counterpart. To be female may mean you starve, suffer malnutrition and die.
“In South Sudan, accessibility to food is much less for woman than men,” says Berhe Terwoldeberhan, Plan International Australia’s disaster risk and resilience manager.
"So access to food and water is really tilted first towards the men, then the children and then the mother who is always the last to eat.”
“That is really the tradition because women make sure the men eat first and they are the ones to eat last. This is the same in Sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia, Malawi..,” Terwoldeberhan continues.
“In some areas, there are also food and water shortages. So access to food and water is really tilted first towards the men, then the children and then the mother who is always the last to eat.”
Anab, 38 (pictured in the lead photo above), has been displaced by the violence in South Sudan. She tells Plan International Australia about the hunger she and her six children face.
"My youngest girl is called Mary," Anab says. "She is just one year old. I cannot get any food for her so most times I offer her my empty breast. When she is too hungry I boil for her leaves to keep her belly full.
"...We are already too hungry. Food is our immediate need.”
"She is just one year old. I cannot get any food for her so most times I offer her my empty breast."
Plan International Australia’s food and climate change advisor (programs), Marilou Drilon, tells SBS that hunger and poverty may be the result of civil conflict or climate change. But it can often be the result of a power imbalance between men and women.
“At the end of the day, the gender with the most access to food is the decision-maker who has power [in the household or community],” Drilon says. “And that’s usually the male.”
The United Nations (UN) estimates that 70 per cent of the 1.3 billion people in poverty worldwide are women. More than 120 million women in developing countries are underweight. In South Asia, for example, 60 per cent of women are underweight.
“The gender with the most access to food is the decision-maker who has power [in the household or community], and that’s usually the male.”
Josie Huxtable, gender advisor (agriculture and food security) for CARE Australia, cites gender inequality as a major cause and effect of hunger and poverty. But gender inequality doesn’t just hit women as food consumers, “gender inequality hits women squarely as food producers”.
“Among economically active women in developing countries, almost 80 per cent spend their working hours producing food through agriculture. Rural women make up nearly 50 per cent of the agricultural labour force.” In South Asia, Huxtable estimates this figure is as high as 70 per cent.
“...gender inequality hits women squarely as food producers."
She explains that women in impoverished communities often don’t have equal access to land (because laws might exclude them from inheriting land), training schemes (because most agriculture trainers are men) and credit for a loan to invest in their farm. They may also lack control over the income they earn from their crops.
Unfortunately, poverty and hunger in developing nations is intergenerational. In Terwoldeberhan’s experience, malnutrition is very high among females generally, and more specifically in pregnant women.
He says the current situation is so bad for pregnant women in South Sudan and other parts of Africa where conflict rages, that “they can die” purely because they don’t have enough food to eat.
“It’s not a healthy situation… These mothers [battling malnutrition] are more likely to give birth to underweight babies. We find that underweight babies are 20 per cent more likely to die before the age of five than a normal weight baby.”
Drilon estimates that half of all the pregnant women in the developing countries where Plan International Australia works are anaemic. “This causes around 110,00 deaths during childbirth each year,” she says. “And that’s just in developing countries throughout Asia and Africa.”
Breaking the hunger cycle
Both CARE and Plan International Australia operate programs in developing countries to help change the gender imbalance and break the cycle of hunger facing women.
CARE works with small-scale farmers, who are mostly women, to improve their capacity to grow food and create positive changes in some of the social inequalities they face. It also operates training sessions for communities on nutrition, gender equality, accessing and participating in markets (so they get fair prices for their produce), and climate change. Social change targets males and females to encourage sustainable, community-wide gender equality.
“A resource like food brings people together. So we use food to change behaviours.”
“We know that simply by ensuring women farmers have the same access as men, they could produce 20-30 per cent more food and between 100-150 million fewer people would be chronically hungry,” says Huxtable. “So working with women and girls and addressing gender inequality offers our best chance to overcome hunger.”
Plan International Australia also targets culture change through the operation of food and nutrition assistance programs.
“What happens is that you do food assistance and distribute food, we find there’s usually an opportunity there to discuss gender equality with the community,” says Terwoldeberhan.
“We might talk about how women and girls should go to school and how ensuring women get access to food will benefit the whole community.
“When people see a positive impact, they do change...This approach does work.”
Drilon adds: “A resource like food brings people together. So we use food to change behaviours.”
In Cambodia, Plan International Australia operates a school meals program. The premise is that in poor communities, households are encouraged to send their daughters to school. If the girl attends class 80 per cent of classes per month, her family will receive food rations.
“Food is being used as an incentive for families to send their daughters to school,” Drilon says. “And if their daughter goes to school, one day the family may get an income.”
“We can all act. And given these challenges, we must all act.”
This International Women’s Day, CARE and Plan International Australia urges males and females alike to acknowledge the food shortages facing women in the developing world.
“Whether its small actions like raising awareness on the underlying causes of hunger and climate change among family and friends or picking up the phone to call our local member of parliament,” says Huxtable.
“We can all act. And given these challenges, we must all act.”